Stabenow and Roberts on farm bill: Don't kick the can down the road
By Sara Wyant
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WASHINGTON, May 16 - Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, expressed confidence today that the U.S. Senate will debate their committee’s 2012 Farm Bill within the next few weeks and the legislation will have “strong, bipartisan support.”
“It’s critical that Congress not kick the can down the road” in the short term or do piece-meal extensions,” Stabenow emphasized during a press conference with Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R- Kan., this morning. Both Senators said they have been working with their respective Senate leaders to find time for floor debate.
“Our farmers need certainty in order to be able to plan. If we are serious about deficit reduction and job creation, Congress needs to pass a farm bill this year. Sixteen million jobs hang in the balance. If that’s not a jobs bill, I don’t know what is,” Stabenow emphasized.
Stabenow said that she has not yet seen the final Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score on the bill that passed out of committee on April 26, but that the measure is expected to save at least $23 billion.
Roberts also underlined the importance of passing the farm bill before the current measure expires on September 30.
“In three and a half months, Kansas farmers will be putting seed in the ground and all of their lenders want to know and they want to know what is in the farm bill. We have an obligation and a responsibillity to get this done. Now we need to get it to the floor,” Roberts explained.
“You just can’t put agriculture and everybody that’s involved in pergatory and then hope for the best by extending the farm bill and then finding yourself in the worst case situation in 2013 or in a lame duck or anything like that,” he added. “We need to move this bill.”
In comments that will likely be repeated during the floor debate, Stabenow said her committee’s farm bill represents “the most signific ant reform that we’ve seen in farm policy in decades. The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs act has made clear that the era of direct payments is over.
“That means we won’t be paying farmers for crops they don’t grow or on acres they don’t plant or providing government assistance to farmers who are already doing very well,” she explained.
“On the other hand, it’s very important that we have implemented a single, responsible risk management program to be there when farmers need it. It is fair for everybody. It treats every covered commodity and every farmer in every state exactly the same way using actual planted acres, actual prices, and actual yields in the same way for all crops.
“This is a market-oriented, multi-year assistance (program) when prices go down. It doesn’t support high prices forever, and compliments crop insurance which is the foundation of our risk management system,” Stabenow added.
Senators Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Richard Durbin, D-IL, are expected to offer an amendment that would place a cap on the amount of crop insurance premium subsidy that farmers can receive annually.
Earlier this year, Senator Coburn requested a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on crop insurance subsidies and the potential impact of capping subsidies at $40,000 per farm, per year.
Without naming names or details, Stabenow said she expects an amendment on crop insurance but expressed confidence that she will be able to make her case for a strong risk management system.
“We have decided that, rather than focus on the past and the old system of direct payments, that we would move to the future with reform and the foundation of that is a strong risk management program,” Stabenow explained.
“I’m confident that we will be successful because people understand that supporting and partnering with farmers to buy insurance, where they are paid if there is a loss, makes much more sense than the old system.”
Roberts recalled that during the committee’s farm bill hearings, “the first priority of farmers was an adequate safety net involving crop insurance.
“Our role was to look at what farmers and ranchers wanted, not particularly in regard to what some individual member of Congress may have in mind,” he added in reference to questions about a potential amendment on crop insurance.
“If that’s an obstacle, so be it. We will work with them and try to find a solution.” But Roberts added: “I’m not aware of any major obstacles on the Senate side.”
While acknowledging “differences” on the commodity title between the House and Senate, Stabenow, said she was confident the different perspectives could be worked out in conference.
Asked about whether or not the stacked income protection program for cotton addresses concerns raised by the Brazilian government over the potential for trade-distortion, Stabenow said that the final bill passed out of committee took out the reference price and made other modifications, while still keeping intact the broad overview.
“This is a crop insurance program, you have to have a loss, and farmers will be paying so they have some skin in the game,” she added.
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